Streetwise Professor

May 3, 2013


Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 5:20 pm

Today is the sesquicentennial of the 3d day of the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Jackson’s flank attack on 2 May, 1863 is usually the focus of accounts of the battle, and indeed, it was a daring and brilliant achievement.  But it did not win the battle for Lee and the Confederacy.  Lee only prevailed after a brutal slugging match on this day, 150 years ago.  Wave after wave of Confederates, under command of Jeb Stuart, repeatedly assailed the western side of a Federal salient surrounding the Chancellor house.  And wave after wave was beaten off by Union soldiers of the Third and Twelfth Corps.  What proved decisive was a disastrous decision to evacuate the high ground at Hazel Grove, made by the Union commander, Joe Hooker.  The Confederates seized this commanding terrain, and the artillery planted there proved decisive.  It was perhaps the only time in the war that Confederate artillery decided a battle: there were several fields where Union artillery proved decisive.  Confederate artillerist and memorialist Porter Alexander said of the abandonment of Hazel Grove: “There has rarely been a more gratuitous gift of a battlefield.”

Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s Masterpiece.  And it was, in many ways.  But it also illustrates the ultimate futility of the Confederate cause.  Even after the rout of the Eleventh Corps on the 2d, the Union forces far outnumbered Lee’s and were in a position to carry out a vigorous defense.  Even with the gratuitous gift of Hazel Grove, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered huge casualties to drive the Federals from the environs of the Chancellor House and Fairview.  The casualties were particularly devastating at every level of command.  The battle was a virtual holocaust of division and brigade commanders, field officers, and company officers.  As a result of the battle, Lee had to undertake a wholesale reorganization of his army, and many of those promoted to fill the positions of those killed or maimed on May 3d proved overmatched two months later, on the fields of Pennsylvania.

In brief, even to execute a “masterpiece”, and one facilitated by numerous errors by his opponent Hooker, Lee had to spend lives at an unsustainable rate.  One wonders how it would have been possible to prevail, since even victory was impossibly costly.

Indeed, even the action of the 3d was not decisive.  The Army of the Potomac retreated from the Chancellorsville salient to a more compact position abutting the Rappahannock River, and entrenched it strongly.  It is highly unlikely that it could have been dislodged by an attack by Lee’s spent force.  But Hooker, who had already suffered a loss of confidence and courage on 1 May, and who had been severely concussed by a shell on the 3d, wanted no more of Lee.  Even though a majority of his corps commanders favored fighting it out on the new line, Hooker decided to retreat.  The ultimate victory was due more to Lee’s psychological dominance over an addled Hooker that proved decisive, than to the military dominance of the ANV.

And this worked on Lee’s psychology too, and not in a good way.  Chancellorsville contributed to a hubris that proved disastrous at Gettysburg.

Meanwhile,while Lee was triumphing at Chancellorsville, events were developing far to the west, in the heart of Mississippi.  After months of frustrated attempts to get at Vicksburg, Grant was on the east side of the Mississippi River.  He had beaten back a Confederate force commanded by John Bowen at Port Gibson on 1 May.  He was advancing east, towards Jackson.

Lee fought a masterful battle in early May.  Grant fought a masterful campaign over three weeks of that month.  The campaign proved far more decisive than the battle, as I’ll discuss in future posts on Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black Bridge.

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  1. Wasn’t it at Chancellorsville where Jackson picked up his injury which kept him out of Gettysburg? His possibly different interpretation of the word “practicable” might have been crucial.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 4, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Yes, Tim. And it was a little bit worse than that. It’s where he picked up his injury that kept him out of life, permanently. He died 8 days after being wounded. He was wounded, by the way, in a friendly fire incident, while reconnoitering the front lines in the dusk.

    And yes, he would have probably interpreted “practicable” at Cemetery Hill differently than Richard Ewell did. Hell, Lee probably wouldn’t have had to give him any orders at all. He would have taken the initiative.

    Except . . . . during the Seven Days Campaign Jackson was slow, passive, and ineffective. This was probably the result of physical and mental exhaustion. So one cannot discount the possibility that he could have had another bad day or bad week in Pennsylvania, had he survived.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 4, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  3. Ah, okay. I knew about the friendly fire wounding, I just wasn’t sure if that was the one which eventually killed him. If I recall correctly, he was wounded previously and briefly out of action. Last year I read the superb Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson, but it is extremely difficult to remember the details hundreds of soliders and battles after just one reading.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 4, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

  4. He’d never been wounded before. No need for apologies re not recalling all the details. I’ve been OCD about the Civil War since age 9. If I’d have been independently wealthy, I would have become a Civil War historian. I have a mind for remembering minutia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 4, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

  5. Okay, I stand corrected re his being wounded. I must be confusing him with somebody else: as you say, the casualty rate amongst the civil war’s top commanders was horrendous.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 4, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

  6. Is it just me, or were Civil War battles an unforced-error fest ala amateur tennis? The technology was hardly different to the Napoleonic era, but the battles were anything like. Why didn’t the South press its early advantage? Did they think the North would just give up?

    Comment by So? — May 5, 2013 @ 12:04 am

  7. Indeed, as we discussed a couple years ago, at every phase of the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia had lost a greater percentage of its men as casualties than the Army of the Potomac had. Hooker had the winning formula in his hands, but didn’t see it: Just put the Army of the Potomac next to the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Army of Northern Virginia will break first.

    Grant understood the relentless mathematics here, which is why he just kept going south at every tactical reverse. Brilliant tactics on a map weren’t what counted.

    Comment by rkka — May 5, 2013 @ 7:37 am

  8. So, the technology was very different. Railroads revolutionized strategy and logistics. Telegraph revolutionized communications, and separated the commanders from the front lines, with good and bad effects.

    And weapons were capable of aimed fire at five times the range of 1815, though the tactical implications of this were not understood clearly.

    Hence at Gettysburg Lee could order men to advance a mile across an open field, subject to aimed fire practically from the instant they left cover…

    Comment by rkka — May 5, 2013 @ 7:45 am

  9. @So? Virtually all military history is an error-fest, when you examine it closely enough. That said, yes there was likely a greater incidence of blunders in the Civil War than your typical conflict. I think there are several reasons for this. First, the there were substantial changes in technology, notably the widespread use of rifled shoulder arms, as rkka notes. The tactics were tailored to smoothbore weapons, and proved totally maladapted to the greater range and killing power of rifled weapons. Second, no one in the United States or the Confederate States had any experience in handling forces anywhere near as large as those employed in the Civil War, or handling them over such vast distances. These were armies of amateurs at every level. Third, the logistical challenges were acute, though as rkka notes railroads, and for the North the use of rivers, mitigated these problems.

    In brief, individuals without any training appropriate to the challenges were grappling with immense tactical, strategic, and logistical challenges. (And the training they did have was probably as much of a hinderance as a help.) They were making it up as they went along, and there was a Darwinian process of selecting leadership. The mismatch between firepower and the ability to maneuver meant that obtaining decision on the battlefield was almost impossible, meaning that the war degenerated into a grim slugfest.

    Regarding the South pressing its advantage. It had no real ability to project power in a sustained way. Its incursions into the North-the Kentucky and Maryland Campaigns of 1862, and the Gettysburg Campaign, were essentially large raids that had virtually no chance of achieving a decisive outcome.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 5, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  10. @So? The blunders of the Civil War can be understood, given the novelty of the technology (which appeared deceptively similar to old technology, making it natural, but disastrous, to employ tactics suited to the old weapons). What is much less excusable is the failure of European militaries to absorb the lessons of the Civil War prior to World War I. Amateurs grappling with problems that they-and virtually no other military-had never had to face is one thing. The failures of the professional military elite in Germany, Britain, and especially France to learn from the Americans’ hard-won lessons is quite another.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 5, 2013 @ 11:46 am

  11. Actually Professor, the US Army failed to learn the lessons of the civil war as well, their offensives in 1918 were crude, and relied on the same outdated tactics that had been used (and discarded) by Britain, France, and Germany in 1914-1915.

    I know we hear a lot about St.Mihiel, but the Germans were already abandoning the position when the US Army assaulted (along with a lot of French support one might add), but a better example would be the relative failure at Meuse Argonne.

    Comment by Andrew — May 6, 2013 @ 4:04 am

  12. Actually this page puts it fairly well:

    I remember talking to the former Colonel of the 1st Btn New Zealand Rifle Brigade shortly before his death, he had served from Gallipoli right through to the end of the war, his comment about American troops he fought alongside ties fairly well with that article “Brave, full of dash, but tactically inept, with an almost suicidal refusal to listen to either the British or the French regarding the realities of the war”

    Comment by Andrew — May 6, 2013 @ 4:21 am

  13. @Andrew. Very good point. American generalship in WWI was appalling, and pig-headedly refused to absorb any advice from the French or British.

    I spent a day in the Argonne, and read quite a bit in preparation for that. Depressing beyond belief.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 6, 2013 @ 11:19 am

  14. Unfortunately all nations have a tendency to ignore the experience of other armies as not relevant to their own.

    Comment by Andrew — May 7, 2013 @ 3:34 am

  15. @Andrew. They say generals are always refighting the last war. Usually that means that they are trying to avoid the mistakes of the last war, and end up making new mistakes: the Maginot Line is the canonical example. WWI generals would have done well to avoid repeating the mistakes of the American Civil War: they would have made different mistakes in the process, but it is hard to imagine how they could have been worse mistakes.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 7, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

  16. Yes, have to agree with you there.

    There were other even better examples than the ACW in the years leading up to WW1 that were ignored regards the firepower V attack debate. A good example is the Russo-Japanese war, the tactical lessons of which were ignored by everybody, even the Russians and Japanese, as an aberration.

    Comment by Andrew — May 8, 2013 @ 12:55 am

  17. I agree with Andrew. Ignoring the lessons of the 1905 war was the real crime. In fact, maybe the Euros learnt the lessons of the Civil War too well. Who has the most rifles at the front wins. So everyone built an extensive railway network and train stations with extra-long platforms (in places where there was otherwise little traffic, so obviously for staging cannon fodder)… All this great mobility at the rear crashed into 19th century battlefield mobility. Tanks and APCs were yet to be invented. Maybe the reason why no lessons were drawn from 1905 was because of the shaky logistics displayed in that war.

    Comment by So? — May 8, 2013 @ 6:39 am

  18. Good points So? The Russians certainly had shaky logistics in 1905. The Japanese had much shorter lines of supply, but were hampered by restrictions such as the size of their merchant marine.

    Comment by Andrew — May 9, 2013 @ 1:30 am

  19. I think everyone is forgetting the impression made by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which Europeans naturally saw as the model for the next conflict. Railroad mobility, fast marching, envelopments, and a short war made people think that WWI was going to follow similar lines. The Euros saw the American Civil War forces as amateurish, and their more recent experience as predictive.

    There is also another reason why militaries “forget” the lessons of recent combat. These organizations have distinct cultures within which members form identities, and pragmatically effective tactics may threaten these. See Robert O’Connell’s Sacred Vessels for an interesting discussion of this with respect to the battleship navy and the hierarchical identity structure it supported. The instinctive revulsion of submarines, for example, may have stemmed from this structure and explained why the naval establishments resisted taking them seriously in 1914 and then had to re-learn all the same lessons in 1940 about convoying, etc.

    Comment by srp — May 10, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

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